Towards Understanding Revelation


We’re still unpacking, but at least the kitchen and my computer are set up, and the garden is mostly in, so I can start to think about Revelation again!

We’re going to touch on a few more 12th century German theologians today. 

In McGinn’s VISIONS OF THE END, he notes a change in emphasis during the 12th century:

“Speculation on the succession of ages had formed a part of the apocalyptic tradition from the very beginning. There are numerous schemata, both from the intertestamental period and from the early centuries of the Christian era. the most popular were the six-age theory based upon the six days of creation [which had it’s culmination in Ussher’s theories] and the four ages rooted in the Pauline understanding of the history of salvation. Many symbolic presentations of these divisions were passed on to later authors by the Fathers.

“Given the interest in the theory of history present in the twelfth century, the extent of concern with the division of ages should come as no surprise…the concern with the determination of the stages of history is always a near neighbor to expectations of the End — the desire to locate one’s own time in the grand scheme of history frequently  serves to show its proximity to the final events. [This is very true. I explain it to myself with two thoughts: First, the Bible says that the End is imminent…so of course, each generation will think they are the last. This is important, because when we think there is lots of time, we are less likely to repent and turn to God. Secondly, there is an observable increasing domination by evil in the world as the centuries go by. Based on that alone, many Christians feel that their particular time period has reached some kind of pinnacle of evil, which would necessitate the Second Coming to undo. This idea is valid in each generation, but mainly because we can’t seem to imagine it being able to get much worse. The problem with both these ideas is that you have to look at Revelation symbolically to make it appear to be truly imminent, and to make the evil described fit a given period of history. When you look at Revelation more literally, it’s far scarier and more evil than anything we’ve experienced so far in history. I don’t think we’ll miss it when it happens.]

“Especially evident in the twelfth-century authors is the shift of emphasis toward the determination of the ages of the history of the Church in the time of the New Covenant. For patristic authors, Christ  had come at the beginning of the last age of history. They showed little interest in subdividing what for many of them could at best be a time of brief duration. By the twelfth century men looked back upon a millennium of the Church’s existence with all its great upheavals and changes. Some felt that the peace of the Church established by Constantine in the fourth century marked the beginning of the final millennial age of the binding of Satan, an age rapidly drawing to a close. Various authors looked upon the changes of their time — the conflict between the Church and the empire, the crusades, the growth of new forms of religious life, the spirit of avarice that seemed to characterize the new economy — and sought to find an explanation for them in the light of God’s salvific plan for history. Such concerns were central to the historical theorists and apocalypticists of the twelfth century.”

As you may have noticed, the writings of many in the Middle Ages were quite self-satisfied with how the Church was proceeding. I think this self-satisfaction had more to do with the thinking that Satan was bound than with the peace of Constantine. The issues that Mr. McGinn lists that are examples of things that needed explanation to those who believed that they were in the Millennium, are characteristics of a fallen world, and unlikely to be extant within the Millennium (thus the need for “explanation”). The “growth of new forms of religious life” could be an exception, yet I really doubt that multiple “forms” of “religious life” will be necessary in the Millennium, when “religious life” will more likely be “every day life,” rather than being expressed in “forms” that are separated from every day life. It is telling that these self-satisfied theologians could find ways of overlooking all these signs of the fallen world in order to continue seeing themselves as the height of Christian development. While not all theologians of this time saw things this way, these self-satisfied attitudes have been carried down through history, even into our present day, by some theologians. We’ll see representatives of this type of view as we go forward.

McGinn goes on to discuss several non-apocalyptic writers of the 12th century who wrote about the ages of the Church. But, as our focus is the Apocalypse, we will skip ahead to Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who definitely had opinions about the Apocalypse.

Here is Mr. McGinn’s description of St. Bernard:

“…the foremost spiritual leader of his time and the greatest of monastic authors. Bernard made frequent use of Antichrist rhetoric in the many quarrels in which he was involved…but an important letter indicates that the Cistercian disagreed with his friend and contemporary St. Norbert, who thought that the final Enemy would come in the current generation. Bernard proposed a four-age division of the Church’s history. In most texts this is tied to an exegesis of the four temptations described in Psalm 90:5-6, but in one Sententia the four ages are symbolized by the four horses of Revelation chapter six. The saint’s increasing pessimism after the failure of the Second Crusade may have moved him to more openly apocalyptic views toward the end of his life.”

Sententia took me a while to figure out. It’s a Latin word meaning ‘sentences’, but here is was obviously referring to a book title. Who names a book SENTENCES? I did a lot of looking online and finally tracked down a book called THE PARABLES & THE SENTENCES, which is a collection of St. Bernard’s parables and short pieces, i.e. ‘sentences’. And, after going through it a couple of times, I think I can safely say that there is no reference to chapter six of Revelation at all. There are, however, many mentions of other chapters of Revelation that I will use when we go through it verse by verse. Meanwhile, here is the part of Psalm 90 referred to, but with a little more context:

3 You turn man to destruction, 

And say, “Return, O children of men.” 

4 For a thousand years in Your sight 

Are like yesterday when it is past,

And like a watch in the night.

5 You carry them away like a flood; 

They are like a sleep; 

In the morning they are like grass which grows up; 

6 In the morning it flourishes and grows up; 

In the evening it is cut down and withers.

7 For we have been consumed by Your anger,

And by your wrath we are terrified. (Psalm 90:3-7; NKJV)

Here is the quote that Mr. McGinn uses to illustrate Bernard of Clairvaux’s ideas, it’s from his book ON THE SONG OF SONGS:

“I can still try to assign these four temptations in their order to the Body of Christ, that is, the Church, if the length of the sermon does not prove wearisome. I will run through it as briefly as I can. Regard the primitive Church. Was it not at the beginning very fiercely penetrated by the ‘fear at night’? (Ps. 90:5) For it was night when everyone who killed the saints thought that he was paying homage to God. When this temptation was overcome and the tempest stilled, the Church became glorious, and according to the promise made to her was briefly placed on high as the pride of the ages. The Enemy, in sorrow at being frustrated, craftily changed himself from the ‘fear at night’ to the ‘arrow flying in the day’ (Ps. 90:6), and by that wounded some members of the Church. Vain men desiring glory and wishing to make a name for themselves arose. They left the Church and for a long time afflicted their mother in different perverse doctrines. But this pest was also expelled by the wisdom of the saints, just as the first one was by the patience of the martyrs.

“Look at these times, free indeed by God’s mercy from either of these evils, but plainly foul with the ‘thing that walks in darkness’ (Ps. 90:6). Woe be to this generation from the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy. (If that ought to be called hypocrisy which is now unable to hide because it is so prevalent and so impudent that it does not even try!) Today the stinking corruption slowly spreads through the whole Body of the Church, both more desperate as it is more widespread and more dangerous as it is more internal. Were an open heretic to arise, he would be cast outside and wither away. Were a violent enemy to come, the Church might hide herself from him. But now whom will she cast out or from whom will she hide herself? All are friends, all are enemies. All are supporters, all are adversaries. All of the household, but none peaceful. All are neighbors, but each one seeks his own advantage. They are ministers of Christ and serve the Antichrist…”

The first, most obvious thing, is Bernard’s use of quotation marks around lines that do not actually appear in what is supposedly being quoted, namely, Psalm 90. 

Taken out of context, I can kind of see his “quotes” as being interpretations of the Psalm. But, in context, it seems to me that it is not the actions of “the Enemy” that is being described here, but the actions of Men: what man does during the day is cut down and withers during the night…it’s meaningless before the wrath of God. Even better is Matthew Henry’s 18th century reading of verses 3-6: “He (Moses, the author of this Psalm) humbles himself and his people with the consideration of the frailty of man.” Comparing man and his works to “grass” indicates how frail and ephemeral man is next to God.

I also need to note that when Mr. McGinn says: “In most texts this is tied to an exegesis of the four temptations described in Psalm 90:5-6…” I really don’t see what he’s referring to. Maybe I’m dense, but I really don’t see “temptations” described in that passage. It makes me wonder if Mr. McGinn even read the passage himself.

So, in context, Bernard’s use of Psalm 90:5-6 does not make a lot of sense, but the message of his passage is interesting. As an aside, I must say that I really thought that the Church as a whole had been pretty much on the right track until just a few generations ago. Since starting this study, it’s become fairly clear that the changes started around the second century and they have multiplied and compounded since then. Reading what Bernard was thinking about the Church during his time leads me to think about where we are today, and how much further down the road we are. His description seems even more appropriate today.

The second writer we will look at is Anselm of Havelberg, not be confused with the more well-known Anselm of Canterbury (aka St. Anselm). Anselm of Havelberg lived almost a hundred years after Anselm of Canterbury, and he lived in Germany rather than England.  He was a contemporary with Bernard; McGinn has this to say about him:

{Anselm of Havelberg] bequeathed us what is perhaps the most original early twelfth-century thoughts on the meaning of the history of the Church… [He] was one of the first disciples of Norbert, the reformer of the canonical life. Although he was made bishop of the frontier diocese of Havelberg in 1129, he spent much of his career outside the see, serving on a wide variety of missions for a succession of popes and emperors. In 1149 at the request of Pope Eugene III he composed the DIALOGUES, whose first book gives us his progressive views on meaning of sacred history. The three books of DIALOGUES are primarily concerned with polemics with the Eastern Church (Anselm had twice been on embassy to Constantinople). In the first book, however, the bishop was also concerned to defend the new forms of canonical orders against conservative critics troubled by the ‘novelties’ of the time. Anselm’s dynamic conceptions of growth…and diversity…in the life of the Church, and the optimism that this brought to his historical outlook, make him in many ways unique among early twelfth-century authors. Anselm fleshed out this view by evolving a pattern of event states in the life of the Church, which he found symbolized in the seven seals of the Book of Revelation. While he was not the first to use the seven seals as a basis for a division of ages, and while his determinations are not as historicizing in intent and execution as those of Joachim were to be, Anselm’s concentration on this apocalyptic pattern is very much a prelude of things to come.”

Anselm’s piece on the seven seals as history is interesting, but we will pursue that when we look at Revelation verse by verse. For now we get a feeling for Anselm from his book DIALOGUES, also called ANTICIMENON, Book 1, Diversity in the Life of the Church:

“It clearly appears that the one Body of the Church is given life by the one Holy Spirit. He is both unique in himself and diverse in the manifest distribution of his gifts. The Body of the Church, vivified by the Holy Spirit, distinct and discrete in its different members in various times and ages, began with Abel, the first just man, and will be consummated in the last of the elect. It is always one in faith, but diversified in many ways by its multiple variety of life….”

I find it interesting that Anselm can look so fondly on “diversity” and yet state “It is always one in faith…” In other words, diversity is fine up to a point. I’m not sure that I disagree with him, it just seems like he may not have totally thought this through. We see today how “diversity” can be used against people, and how it can become the means AND the end…important unto itself rather than serving the needs of mankind. I doubt he saw that coming.

We stop here. Next time we will meet Joachim of Fiore, a truly unique and prolific writer of the Middle Ages. After Joachim we are in the High Middle Ages, leading into the Renaissance. 

As things are still busy here, I probably won’t get more than one post out a week for a while. In the meantime, I will be praying that God provides you with some comfort this week.

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